somos uno — the avatar

 Posted by on February 20, 2009 at 12:20 pm
Feb 202009

Throughout the procedure I watched the rainbow flags flutter on Market Street.  That’s what flags do in the Castro–the heart of San Francisco’s gay community–they flutter. Especially rainbow flags.

Rainbow flags on San Francisco's Market Street
Rainbow  flags  flutter  on  San Francisco’s  Market  Street (photo:

It hurt more than I expected. The dental drill-like vibration against my shin bone radiated throughout my body and settled into the joint of my jaw, which I continually tried to relax. It was the last day of my latest trek to San Francisco in 2000. My flight out of SFO was scheduled for early afternoon. What the hell was I thinking to do this so early in the morning? Oh well, it’s for Juan, so I will endure it. A few years earlier I had addressed a national conference in Kansas City of the organization Men of All Colors Together/Black and White Men Together, or MACT/BWMT. (The gay community has elevated even acronymity to an art, I guess because we like art.)

Juan and me at Goat’s Head Beach, CA in 1992

As I welcomed the conference attendees, touting Kansas City’s recently passed gay rights ordinance and the local social offerings (bars), I noticed Juan in the audience. Oh, how I noticed him.

It’s so gay, I know, but he was not only adorable, he was irresitable. Sweet face, brown skin in a sea of black and white. This interracial social organization was begun as Black and White Men Together, and while some chapters had changed their names to Men of All Colors Together as a gesture of inclusivity, there just wasn’t a lot of yellow, red or brown skin to be seen at the conference.

Thanks to a huge flow of AID$ dollars from the feds, and an emphasis on reaching “risk groups”, such as latinos, this previously low budget organization had secured funding for an National AIDS Outreach Coordinator for Latinos (or some such title), and that was Juan. We both already had partners, but at least in my case that commitment never required, or even expected monogamy, though that has eventually prevailed. Others can judge as they will. Michael and I are still together after 30 years. Juan and I consummated our mutual attraction that night, in his hotel room.

We were both modern urban gay males and we understood that there were no expectations beyond a night of intimacy, but the connection was intense enough that we spent the next night together, too.

This postcard from Juan is now the wallpaper on my monitor

A two night stand wasn’t enough for either of us. Over the next few years we would hook up in Houston, Chapel Hill, Washington DC, San Francisco (twice) and Kansas City again a few years later. I’ve never known another relationship quite like it. Sexual intensity may have drawn us together, but another, more intense and less definable connection kept us linked for several years. Indeed, there was no sex at all the last visit when he was so sick. It wasn’t what was important at that point.

In March, 2000 I got a card from Juan’s brother Raymundo. Juan had died just before the millenium, December 12, 1999.

Colorful card from Raymundo bearing news Juan had died
Colorful card from Raymundo bearing news Juan had died

During his last visit to KC earlier that year Juan had gone to a Chiefs football game with my partner Michael before taking a trip to Eureka Springs with me for a few days. There was no awkwardness between any of us.

Juan was taking an AIDS drug cocktail by that time and it was clear his health was failing him. He had “the look”. While holding him one night he told me how he thought it was because of the toxicity of the drugs, but he was afraid of what might happen if he stopped taking them.

A memorial service was scheduled for March 25, 2000 in San Francisco, where Juan lived and worked. My father had just passed away in February and I desperately needed a break after three months of intensive caregiving while he had died in Colby, a rural town eight hours away from my home.

Visiting San Francisco has become a sort of catharsis for me over the years, a Hajj, if you will. I didn’t really enjoy my first visit to the city, but that was probably due to the timing. It was during the Plague years, when the Castro was a very dark place. Since then I’ve discovered the city’s infinitely variable landscape of geography, architecture, and culture that lends itself to getting lost, only to find a streetcar around the corner.

The family part of Juan’s memorial was held at Mission Delores, a beautiful Catholic church in the Mission district. It was hard to sit through all the ancient and irrelevant (to me) religious ritual, but as I could see from the memorial program below, which was Juan’s original artwork, the Church was very important to him.

Juan's original artwork from his memorial service
Juan’s original artwork from his memorial service

Afterwards, Juan’s friends hosted a brunch at the offices of the street outreach that housed his  AIDS education efforts. Over a buffet table of tamales, chips and sauces was a banner that read: somos uno, or we are all one, according to someone there. No one there knew me. Juan had told some of his family about his Kansas City friend and they shared some tidbits that validated for me that I had been a significant person in Juan’s life, but his gay friends and I were strangers to each other. Apparently Juan never mentioned his gringo boyfriend from the Midwest, so I was regarded by most of them as some sort of hanger on.

On my way back to the hotel in the Castro, I passed Cold Steel, a tattoo and piercing parlor. I had passed it a dozen times before, but this time I turned in through the front door and started looking through the artists’ portfolios. I so wanted something to help me remember this place I was in.

There had been so much death in my life the past fifteen years, dozens of friends, my father and a brother. I had been diagnosed with “HIV” myself a year earlier. I had often pondered a tattoo, but never felt inspired to get one. Until now.

I talked to the artist who was available, a pleasant woman who had worked in Colorado, and was now in SF. Up front I told her I was poz, as I didn’t want to have problems later on. No problem. I told her I wanted something that represented life, like circles. Diversity is important to me. I shared about the purpose of my Hajj, and mentioned the “somos uno” banner, We Are All One.  I looked out the window and saw the rainbow flags fluttering up and down Market Street.

Her hand flew across her sketch pad and in a matter of minutes she showed me her idea from our visit. The avatar you see on this page is that tattoo, on the shin of my left leg. I call it somos uno and it is now my avatar too.

somos uno - the tat

Shortly after returning home to Kansas City I stopped taking the AIDS drugs myself, but that is another story


(UPDATE:  January 10, 2010)

My online avatar has been updated, but this story remains.

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